Monsignor Isidore must pay a visit to an order of nuns living in an isolated convent, ostensibly to bless their Sister Celestine who is suffering on her deathbed. Sequestered from the rest of the world, the nuns exist in a unique bubble of gaiety and piety, and the priest's visit is a major event in their sequestered lives.
But Monsignor Isidore has unexpected news: the church's leadership has decided that they are selling the land that the nuns live on, something only the head nun, Mother Rita, is aware of. But when the Monsignor almost steps on a landmine dating back to a past war during the visit and the bomb cannot be deactivated, panic ensues and faith is tested.
Written and directed by Michel Zarazir, this quirky dramedy takes place in the unique milieu of a convent of nuns. It allows the storytelling both to subvert ideas of what a group of women dedicated to their religion are like, often to humorous effect. But the setting and community also allows an exploration of weighty themes of faith and devotion with an often sardonic wit.
The nuns are a delightfully eccentric group, with their constant chatter, gambits and banter. Captured with a freewheeling handheld camera style full of energy and dynamism, there's a rowdiness and sense of mischief in the group, but also infectious anticipation when their solidarity is interrupted by the visit of the Monsignor, which changes their dynamic.
Monsignor Isidore is seemingly dignified and authoritative, and the nuns seem to defer to him and his authority. But when he ends up in a field of landmines and can't move until it's cleared, his facade of paternal certainty and even faith fall apart, captured in a rapid-fire pace that's almost manic. The disintegration of piety and certainty sparks a comedy of manners among their unique community, revealing the secrets, vulnerabilities and hidden resentments of both the priest and the nuns as they try to remedy the situation.
Through it all, their efforts reveal this group of paragons of faith to be deeply human. They have to pee; they medicate the increasing stress of the situation with pills; they bicker and chide one another. The ensemble cast -- led by actors Manuel Daher as Monsignor Isidore and Yvonne El Haiby Nakad as Mother Rita -- is overall excellent, bubbling and crackling with screwball energy but also spiky with irritation, anxiety and fear when the situation calls for it. Collectively, they whip one another into a frenzied panic, making for an emotional powderkeg ready to explode in its way.
"Under the Robes" is an antic, sharply funny exploration of the serious subjects of faith. It is easy to take on the trappings of dignity and piety and don the appearance of spiritual authority. But as this short cheekily reminds us, we are all human beings underneath it all, with our frailties, pettiness and vulnerabilities. When push comes to shove in life, we find out who we really are and what we truly value. Yet the ending shows there is still room for divine providence, albeit in a darkly comic way. There are miracles in life, but never where we'd think -- and to find them we may have to shed our certainties and embrace the unknown.